Last updated February 13, 2018 at 4:42 pm
Do the claims of sustainable products actually mean anything? According to a new study, it might all be a corporate con job.
Your average afternoon chocolate snack has a range of messages from the manufacturer trying to entice you with their responsible corporate practices. And you try to choose one which appears ethical, because you prefer your products that don’t contribute to deforestation or labour abuse.
But buying an ethically sourced product is not as straightforward as it might seem, according to US researchers who undertook the first large-scale analysis of corporate practices around sustainable sourcing.
While more than half of the companies in the study applied sustainable practices somewhere in their supply chain, were they as common as the labelling and image pushed by the companies suggest?
In short, no.
The study found that, by and large, sustainable practices only applied to a small subset of materials for a product.
For example, a company might use recycled materials for the packaging of a product, but leave everything else involved in creating it unaddressed.
Sustainable practices are limited
Analysing 449 publicly listed companies in the food, textile and wood-products sectors, the study revealed around half used some form of sustainable sourcing practice. These ranged from third-party certification of production, to environmental training for suppliers.
While that sounds positive, the actual impact of these practices was limited.
More than 70 per cent of those sustainability practices were limited to only a small amount of materials used in a product.
Additionally, only 15 per cent of the sustainable sourcing practices had a focus on health, energy, infrastructure, climate change, education, gender or poverty. Most addressed labour rights and compliance with national laws.
But almost all of them involved only a single stage in the supply chain, further revealing the limited impact of these trumpeted sustainability practices. Usually it only applied to the first-tier suppliers, such as the textile factories that sew T-shirts. Often the remaining processes, involving everything from dying the cloth to growing the cotton, were not addressed.
For many companies, sustainability practices also seemed to be applied to select products. More than a quarter of sustainable sourcing practices applied to only a single product line, even if the manufacturer made other similar products.
For example, a company may use Fair Trade certification for only one type of chocolate bar among many that it sells.
Customers can make a difference
It could be simple to look at the limited impact of sustainable sourcing practices and think that it’s mere lip service by large corporations.
Companies who make products labelled as sustainable, but then incorporate only a fraction of sustainably sourced materials or at only a single level in the process, do seem to be making a minimal effort which could be interpreted as a cynical marketing ploy.
However, the researchers concede that the complexity of large supply chains does mean that sustainable practices can be difficult to widely implement.
“Advancing environmental and social goals in supply chains can quickly become very complex,” said study co-author Joann de Zegher from Stanford University.
“This complexity is reflected in our findings that companies use a broad range of strategies, and that current efforts have limited reach.”
Time to demand more corporate responsibility
However, you would hope that companies which claim to use sustainable practices would be able to implement more than just a single subset of materials, or a single product line which contain sustainable supplies, within those large supply chains.
We as customers should demand more corporate responsibility and push for more sustainable practices to be introduced across the board. And this can have an effect – the researchers did find that companies on the receiving end of consumer and society pressure are “significantly more likely” to increase their adoption of sustainable sourcing practice.
“The pressure consumers put on firms when they demand more sustainable products might be paying off,” said study lead author Tannis Thorlakson.
“I hope this paper acts as a call to action for those 48 percent of companies that aren’t doing anything to address sustainability challenges in their supply chain.”
Hopefully some of the companies who also implement minimal sustainable practices also continue to push their supply chains to higher levels of responsibility.
As the world becomes more globally connected, we have a moral obligation to reduce exploitation of others and the environment for our lifestyle. According to this analysis however, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences